Dodgy figures and suspect ideological interpretations give the impression that violence by men against women is rampant says JOHN COOCHEY. The reality is very different.

NAOMI WOLFE wrote a best seller, The Beauty Myth, based on the premise that 150,000 American women die of anorexia nervosa each year. The actual figure for 1991 was 54, according to the US National Centre for Health Statistics, These days people will accept even the wildest claims, as long as they make women out to be victims. Particularly if they also put men in a poor light.

Since the 1980s it has become increasingly difficult to read publications from bodies as diverse as the federal government, the United Nations children’s fund and Amnesty International without finding wildly exaggerated claims about violence against women. Frequently, such bodies put out information which varies from misleading to simply false. Some academics contribute to the confusion, in the media. In one recent case, a University of Adelaide law lecturer, Hilary Charlesworth, stated on the ABC show Women Out Loud that the majority of victims in war were now women. She later gave the Red Cross as the source. In fact the Red Cross does not collect such figures, although it has stated that 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are women and children. Presumably men are unrepresented because they are either still within the war zone or are dead.

In May 1995 a Queensland academic, Jeanne Madison, was reported as having stated that 67 per cent of nurses she had surveyed complained of being the target of sexual harassment. But this included any unwelcome phone calls and requests for dates. not necessarily persistent ones. An Australian sociologist. Michael Bitman. Has done a study called Juggling Time on the number of hours worked, paid and unpaid, by men and women. He found that, although women do more housework, men put in more hours overall. The federal government’s Office of the Status of Women (0SW) subsequently published a booklet, Selected Findings From Juggling Time. which focused only on the unpaid work, thereby portraying women as the losers.

But falsehoods are most prevalent in the field of domestic violence.

In 1987 the Office of the Status of Women ran a campaign which stated that one in three married women was at risk from domestic violence. This number is still in wide use and was widely accepted until Melbourne film maker Don Prahn made a documentary, The Deadly Hurt, on which federal minister for family services, Senator Rosemary Crowley, was asked about the source of such claims. “Why are you worried about a little bit of wrong analysis?” was her answer. The sources 0SW subsequently gave for its claim were the book Behind Closed Doors, written by three American social researchers, Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz in 1980, and the Canadian Juristat study. Behind Closed Doors actually states that one in three households would experience some degree of domestic violence but in half the cases the woman would be the perpetrator. These findings have been repeated in at least 30 studies since then. In fact male-female violence has decreased while female to male has increased. The Juristat study had a figure of problems in 30 per cent of households but half of these involved mild sexual harassment, not violence. Juristat was criticised by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as many of the questions were leading and would have resulted in biased answers.

In late 1994 the Office of the Status of Women approached the Australian Bureau of Statistics to do a survey titled Male Violence Against Women. The survey will cost $1.3 million with some money coming from the department of human services and health.

Leaked ABS documents show considerable anger from some staff that no men will be allowed to participate in operational aspects of the survey, and about the nature of the survey. Some professionals have dubbed it “advocacy research”, designed to come to a predetermined conclusion (see box page 63). Normally the involvement of participants in ABS surveys is compulsory to ensure that the respondents reflect the population as a whole, but this one will be voluntary. In an extreme case, only women who claim to have been assaulted would bother to respond. It will not look at domestic violence against men or children and originally 0SW refused to countenance the inclusion of female-to-female violence, despite the fact that 26 per cent of assaults against women are by other women. Some professionals believe a comprehensive survey of domestic violence could be run for the same cost. Some ABS staff questioned the need for the survey at all as an existing survey, Crime And Safety In Australia, had shown that only 0.7 per cent of women had been subject to assault or threat of assault in their own home in any one year. (a reduction of 25 per cent since 1983). That study showed that, overall, men are nearly twice as likely to be victims of violence as are women.

Proposals to widen the study were ridiculed in a Letter to The Canberra Times (Feb 9) by Kathleen Townsend, head of 0SW. “To suggest that any planned research on women’s experience of violence should look at women as perpetrators is about as logical as the proposition that a child abuse survey should include data on child bullies,” she wrote.

There are good reasons why 0SW does not want domestic violence in its entirety studied.

International studies such as Behind Closed Doors show that when interspousal violence is examined it is pretty much gender neutral. For the US about 15 per cent of women experience domestic violence at some stage in their lives, but so will 15 per cent of men. The more urbanised the society, the more equalised the violence. When violence against children is included women take the lead as perpetrators.

In Australia, a 1995 study in four Victorian hospitals by Virginia Routley and Jenny Sherrard using data from the Victorian injury surveillance system (VISS) showed surprisingly high levels of admissions for men who were victims of domestic violence. Indeed, the original published findings showed 40 per cent of all domestic violence victims who required hospital admission were men who had been assaulted by their partners. This figure was later reduced to 28 per cent by the authors. The authors used three categories: confirmed, probable and suggestive. If the methodology had been applied consistently to both genders there may have been more male victims than female because women who had injuries they claimed were due to other causes could be classed as “probables”. A refusal to be reinterviewed could be enough for a woman to be included as a victim. The same methodology was not used for men even though they are less likely to report being beaten by a spouse. The authors of the study state that previous studies defined “probable” as “those cases where the injuries were not sustained in a street assault, mugging or robbery”. If applied to the VISS population as a whole this would mean that males heavily outweigh females as “probable” victims of domestic violence.

An existing survey had shown that only 0.7 per cent of women had been subject to assault or threat of assault in their own home in any one year.

On 26 April, federal health minister Carmen Lawrence launched a media release for “National Stop Violence Against Women Day.” That statement said, in part:

We also know that domestic violence comprises one of the largest areas of police work – some 70 per cent according to New South Wales figures …

Victorian police report that they received more than 14,000 calls involving domestic violence in 1992 …

There are no national statistics on the nature and extent of violence against women but we do know that on any night in Australia, approximately 5,000 women and children seek accommodation in refuges – most of whom are escaping violence …

And in Queensland, a 1992 study showed that one in five women admitted to the Royal Brisbane Hospital’s emergency department was a victim of domestic violence.

I have looked at the source for each of these extraordinary claims. The officials responsible told me the 70 per cent of police work figure came from an ACT community law reform paper, Research Paper No.1, (Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra 1993). The actual figure in that report for the percentage of police call-outs to all domestic incidents is 3.5 per cent, of which only one in five involved an assault]I. (including male on male). This is 0.7 per cent, not 70 

Victorian police crime statistics for 1993-94 show 13,485 call-outs to family incidents. Only 13.7 per cent definitely involved violence against the person, which would amount to one-tenth of 1 per cent of households in Victoria. Fewer than half of these resulted in charges being laid. In 18 per cent of the total incidents the complainant was male and 17 per cent involved parents and children. Victorian police operating procedures now include “threatening to damage property” and “behaving in an offensive manner” as “violence.”

0SW originally claimed that the figure of 5,000 for the number of women and children seeking refuge came from the national census, which actually shows the number in accommodation, not seeking it. The official figure is for “Hostels For The Homeless, Night Shelters And Refuges”. There were 6,607 people in this category – l,614 children, 1,271 women and 3,722 men. In other words, men outnumbered women and children put together. There was no indication if any of these people had been subjected to violence. Subsequently, 0SW claimed the figure came from statistics compiled by the supported accommodation assistance program (SAAP) and from a paper by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. In fact the SAAP figures show that on each night about 280 women claiming that they are the victims of domestic violence seek accommodation at a refuge. The AIHW paper suggests a lower figure.

The figure for Queensland is claimed to come from a study done in 1990 by Gwen Roberts, of the department of psychiatry at the University of Queensland. In fact the study was done in 1991 and the only publication so far occurred in the Medical Journal of Australia 1993. That study actually concluded that “one in 100 emergency department attendances is as a result of domestic violence”. The 20 per cent figure refers to women attendees who claimed to have been victims of “domestic violence” at some time in their adult lives. That included being pushed or verbally abused. There is no evidence that any were actually admitted to hospital.

Frequently the Australian media draw on faulty data from abroad.

In December 1994 an article appeared in The Canberra Times titled Violence Against Women Now The Most Common Crime – UN, based on the United Nations Children’s Fund report The State Of’ The World’s Children, 1995. The relevant page was headed The Greatest Abuse – Violence Against Women. Almost all of this was taken from a report by a Lori Heise for the World Bank which the bank has refused to endorse. It begins with a number of “illustrative quotes” to set the theme of the report, such as, A wife is like a pony bought; I’ll ride her and whip her as I like. The paper is based on 40 surveys which it claims show the level of violence against women world-wide. Many of the surveys are not based on statistically valid samples but are what Heise terms “convenience samples”. Some of the surveys which she claims are based on random samples are not, because many of the sample group refused to participate, which will normally bias answers towards the positive as only those with an interest in the issue will bother to participate.

Five of the six surveys which relate to rape use the Sexual Experience Survey developed by Mary Koss in America. This was discredited when it was realised that three-quarters of those classified as victims did not consider that they had been raped at all. According to Koss, up to 27 per cent of all women are victims of rape. A recent International Crime Victim Survey found that the figure for Australia was in fact 1.1 per cent.

Heise states that 27 to 62 per cent of women recall at least one incident of sexual abuse that occurred before they were 18. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s 1994 study Child Abuse And Neglect gives a figure slightly over 1 per cent. Heise’s claim was allegedly based on a study by S. Peters, A Sourcebook On Child Sexual Abuse, which summarised the results of existing studies. In fact his findings ranged from 6 to 62 per cent for women and 3 to 30 per cent for men. He concluded: “The situation is confusing. The reality is that there is not yet any consensus among social scientists about the national scope of sexual abuse.” He found varying definitions of sexual abuse in the surveys he studied. The survey which gave the highest figure included the following question: “During childhood or adolescence (before the age of 18) did anyone attempt to have intercourse with you?” and “During childhood and adolescence, did anyone try to have you arouse them, or touch their body in a sexual way?” Thus any teenager who has been involved in a mutually consenting petting session is now a victim of sexual abuse.

One figure which did not get into the UNICEF report was from the Brazilian national criminal justice census of 1988. For the period October 1987 to September 1988, 1,153,300 people declared that they had been the victims of physical abuse; 60 per cent of the victim’s were men and 40 per cent were women. Thus even for third-world countries it seems inappropriate to term violence against women “the greatest abuse

One of the key lines in Carmen Lawrence’s April 26 press release was:

These statistics are shameful and demand exposure.

Well, yes.

Inset from Page 51


THE FOLLOWING comments were made by male and female staff members of the Australian Bureau of Statistics using the bureau’s internal e-mail after the Office for the Status of Women approached it in late 1994 to conduct a survey called Male Violence Against Women,

Freely available information on this survey has been pretty thin compared to that usually available during the development of other surveys which I have had to deal with . . I think part of the reason for the lack of freely available information is that those responsible for the survey want to minimise the involvement of men. In fact just today I was told that is the case and a special exemption from sexual discrimination is about to be provided, So it looks like I won ‘t be involved. 

Australia currently lacks a comprehensive study of domestic violence with reliable and valid information. Perhaps public funds would be better spent getting such a comprehensive picture first. Would it not be possible to convince the powers that be that, as there is already a survey being funded to gather some of the data, they should take advantage of this and with the addition of a minuscule more funding extend the survey to cover all forms of domestic violence?

Now that a number of surveys in the ABS are being financed by users, it is imperative that we remain objective and that we ensure that the methodology of such collections is soundly based. In the past, I have raised with senior management the possibility that in, the current environment we are in danger of dancing to the piper’s tune with surveys funded in this way. Now it appears my concerns are well-founded I have it on good authority that the methodology for this survey is flawed and it appears that it is being deliberately manipulated by 0SW to achieve the survey results that they desire.

Has anyone been following the development of the Survey Of Violence Against Women? It is becoming increasingly clear that the Office of the Status of Women are not interested in getting an accurate picture of domestic violence nor are they interested only in violence against women. They are interested only in violence against women by men.. – we should be asking if this survey is in the best interest of the public. What purpose does it serve? What uses will such data be put to? I have serious concerns about this survey and do not feel that the ABS should be involved if it continues to develop along these lines. 

John Coochey